Biblical Church Growth


Back in the late 1950’s, Universal International released one of my all-time favorite golden age science fiction movies: The Incredible Shrinking Man. Because of a freak accident – sailing his boat into a cloud of radio activity, because that happened so often in the 1950’s – a man begins to shrink. He gets smaller and smaller until he literally vanishes. It’s a creepy film, and of course it’s preposterous. But back then, Universal International made a fortune cranking out these types of crazy, highly entertaining sci-fi movies.

Equally as creepy, but not at all preposterous, is the phenomenon of our times: the incredible shrinking church. Never before in the history of the America has the church of Jesus Christ had less influence than it has today. Almost without exception, although there are some, every denomination in this country is experiencing a decline in membership. Some are declining fast. The Presbyterian Church (USA), for example, is disappearing before our very eyes after committing a kind denominational suicide. But they aren’t alone. Name any mainline denomination you can think of, and you may be sure their numbers are shrinking.

Generally speaking, the influence of all institutions in this country is shrinking. We’ve entered a very cynical phase in American history, or maybe even world history, where people no longer trust or even respect once-venerated institutions. Trust in the government, for example, is at a historic low. That’s understandable given the many scandals of late and the glaring incompetence on constant display in Washington DC. Trust in the media has never been lower. Who thinks they are getting the straight scoop in any newspaper or TV newscast? Banks and insurance companies are not trusted. And forget about “big pharma!” Jack Weinberg, a student activist and advocate of free speech on the campus of Berkeley back in the mid 1960’s, coined the phrase:

Never trust anybody over 30.

Well, he’s now in his 60’s and he is in good company insofar as his philosophy is concerned. These days, nobody trusts anybody or any institution, including the church. And that’s a big reason for the decline in membership.

It’s interesting to see how different churches have tried to buck this shrinkage trend. We have the oddball “seeker sensitive” movement and the unlikely “non-church church” movement. We have denominations that have become so worldly, anybody deviant may join in. We have churches that resemble concert halls and pastors that resemble aged rock stars. Churches do these dopey things to attract more members.

Not that there is anything with wrong with church growth. The Lord wants His people to grow individually and He wants them to grow corporately. He wants His Church to grow and He has given special gifts to churches to make sure that growth occurs:

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. (Ephesians 4:11 – 14 NIV)

The last phrase there, “each part does its work,” is important. It says every church member is to use his spiritual gift or gifts within the context of his local church. When that takes place, the church will grow. There is never an exception to this. But it’s not automatic. When church growth doesn’t occur, there may be a reason for it:

They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow. (Colossians 2:19 NIV)

Again, it’s that last phrase that’s important: “God causes it to grow.” That’s not an insignificant point. It’s God who causes a church to grow. But, as Paul told the Colossians, if we lose our connection to the Head of the church, Jesus Christ, we won’t grow. When we don’t grow, at best we become stagnant, and at worst we turn into “the incredible shrinking church.”

We don’t want either of those things to happen. And they are both completely avoidable.

Each member must do his share

A church will grow – it must grow – when each member does his part as a member of the Body of Christ, not just a member of his local church.

From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. (Ephesians 4:16 NIV)

You see, Paul understood the life of the Church in organic terms, not in organizational terms. A truly healthy church lies within the purview of the Holy Spirit working through each member of the Body of Christ. In other words, while it is correct to say, “God builds His church,” it’s not correct to think He does it in a vacuum. God does build His church, but He does so through its members, as they exercise the gifts He has given them.

These spiritual gifts, by the way, are within every single born again believer. There isn’t a Christian alive who has no spiritual gift. All Christians have been given spiritual gifts to varying degrees for the sole purpose of building up his or her church. That being true, each member of the church has a job to do that goes beyond warming up a pew every Sunday.

God has given each of us the ability to do certain things well. So if God has given you the ability to prophesy, then prophesy whenever you can—as often as your faith is strong enough to receive a message from God. If your gift is that of serving others, serve them well. If you are a teacher, do a good job of teaching. If you are a preacher, see to it that your sermons are strong and helpful. If God has given you money, be generous in helping others with it. If God has given you administrative ability and put you in charge of the work of others, take the responsibility seriously. Those who offer comfort to the sorrowing should do so with Christian cheer. (Romans 12:6 – 8 TLB)

In this passage, Paul describes a total of seven spiritual gifts that have been distributed to members of the church. There are other spiritual gifts mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament (see the lists in: 1 Corinthians 12:8 – 10, 28, 29; Ephesians 4:11), but my point is each member has a function within his or her church. When a member fails to exercise his or her gift or gifts, something will be missing from that church – something God wants that church to have. When a Christian fails to affiliate himself with a local church, it’s not an exaggeration to say that that Christian is robbing a church of something God intends for it to have. A Christian who habitually skips church services is selfish and narcissistic, caring only about himself. If he cared for other Christians, he’d be in a church and he’d be exercising the gifts God has given him.

Don’t believe me? Read on:

Don’t just pretend that you love others: really love them. Hate what is wrong. Stand on the side of the good. Love each other with brotherly affection and take delight in honoring each other. Never be lazy in your work, but serve the Lord enthusiastically. (Romans 12:9 – 11 TLB)

Contextually, this takes place in a church. There is more to the church than a place where offerings are taken up, couples are married, and then buried. The church is the one place on earth where a Christian may participate fully in the ministry of Jesus Christ through the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

I cannot conceive of how miserable a Christian is who doesn’t go to church. The Spirit within him is grieving, and he can surely feel that. What kind of person can continually turn a deaf ear to the call of the Holy Spirit? What kind of person thinks nothing of grieving the Holy Spirit week after week after selfish week?

Every member is important!

Our bodies have many parts, but the many parts make up only one body when they are all put together. So it is with the “body” of Christ. (1 Corinthians 12:12 – 22, verse 12 cited TLB)

The church cannot do without a single member! You see, a church is like a human body. That’s why we call it “the Body of Christ.” The human body has all kinds of different parts and each part is important. In a church, there are all kinds of different people with all kinds of different spiritual gifts and all those people are important in the life of that church. Dr. McGee tells an interesting story about this very subject:

After I had spoken at a baccalaureate service in a prep school in Atlanta, I went to a doctor’s home for dinner. He asked me if I knew which was the most important part of my body while I had been speaking. I guessed it was my tongue. “No,” he said, “the most important part of your body today was a part nobody would think of. It was your big toe. If you didn’t have a couple of big toes, you wouldn’t have been able to stand up there at all.

Even members you never really see doing anything, may be doing a lot. We can’t all be preachers, thank goodness. We all have different gifts and they’re all important, otherwise they wouldn’t be in the church. Churches grow when members let the Head of the Church work through them.

Instead, we will lovingly follow the truth at all times—speaking truly, dealing truly, living truly—and so become more and more in every way like Christ who is the Head of his body, the Church. Under his direction, the whole body is fitted together perfectly, and each part in its own special way helps the other parts, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love. (Ephesians 4:15, 16 TLB)

There’s no selfishness there, is there? Christians – church members – are to worship together, exercising their spiritual gifts together, and growing in strength together.

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12, 13 NKJV)

God is doing the work in us and through us as we participate in the life of the church. This kind of growth can’t take place outside of the church. That’s why you don’t find mature Christians out of the church. They’re the ones in the church.

Let us give thanks to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the merciful Father, the God from whom all help comes! He helps us in all our troubles, so that we are able to help others who have all kinds of troubles, using the same help that we ourselves have received from God. Just as we have a share in Christ’s many sufferings, so also through Christ we share in God’s great help. (2 Corinthians 1:3 – 5 GNB)

There is no denying that something special – something supernatural – takes place in the church. Members are nourished from above and from within and from each other. With all that going on, that church is bound to grow, both spiritually and numerically. But if members don’t do their part, the church’s growth will be stunted. Fact is, the church is woefully handicapped by lazy or nonfunctioning members. Even the best of churches will never reach its potential when it is being hindered by selfish members, always wanting but never giving.

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